Cuban artists at a «bon voyage» party in Vedado for Mario Carreño and José Gómez Sicre, leaving for New York to attend the MoMA exhibition. Back row, from left: Luis Martínez Pedro, novelist Enrique Labrador Ruiz, José Gómez Sicre, Felipe Orlando, and Cundo Bermúdez. Seated: Victor Manuel, Amelia Peláez, Mario Carreño.
Courtesy Dr. Alejandro Anreus

On Friday, March 7, the Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies presented a program on “Modern Cuban Art in New York: The MoMA Exhibition of 1944.” Alejandro Anreus, professor of art history and Latin American/Latino Studies at William Paterson University, led off with a talk about the exhibition, its genesis, and its impact on Cuban art. Here is an excerpted version of his presentation. Our thanks to Prof. Anreus for sharing it with us.

On March 17, 1944, the Museum of Modern Art opened the exhibition Modern Cuban Painters. Organized by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. in consultation with a young Cuban art critic and curator by the name of José Gómez Sicre, the exhibition was hailed by the art criticism establishment, from the conservative Royal Cortissoz to the more liberal Edward Alden Jewell. In Art News, H.F. Kraus described it as “an exhibition of color and verve and home grown baroque sensibility . . . very different from the Mexican work seen in these very galleries four years ago.”

Cuban art was not a complete stranger to New York audiences. In 1939 there had been an exhibition of mostly traditional Cuban art at the Riverside Museum in conjunction with the World’s Fair, and in 1943 the Museum of Modern Art had exhibited their recent acquisitions of Latin American Art, which included several Cuban paintings and one sculpture (undoubtedly a reflection of the Good Neighbor Policy). Yet Modern Cuban Painters was a different endeavor, as it was focused exclusively on 13 Cuban painters living and working in the island in 1944, while practically all of the costs associated with the entire project were covered by the Cuban heiress María Luisa Gómez Mena. A number of seminal works which would become part of the canon of the Cuban vanguardia, such as Carlos Enríquez’ Bandolero criollo, Fidelio Ponce’s San Ignacio de Loyola, Amelia Peláez’s Marpacifico, Mario Carreño’s El corte de caña, and Cundo Bermúdez’s La barberia, were included in the exhibition.

MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Fidelio Ponce, and José Gómez Sicre in Matanzas, summer 1942.
Courtesy Dr. Alejandro Anreus

What the images do not tell us is the genesis of the exhibition and its implications in proposing a new definition for modern Cuban painting. In the summer of 1942 Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and Edgar Kauffman, Jr. (then a young assistant in MoMA’s Design department) went on a six-week buying trip to Mexico and Cuba with $26,000 given by Nelson Rockefeller for the acquisition of Mexican and Cuban works. The first four and a half weeks were spent in Mexico and the final week and a half in Cuba.

At the center of this whirlwind experience of Cuban culture was the heiress María Luisa Gómez Mena. Her family’s wealth could be traced all the way back to the island’s colonial period – wealth made with slaves and sugarcane. María Luisa was the family’s black sheepShe was active in the Lyceum, opposed the Batista government, had supported the Spanish Republic against the fascists, and she led very openly the life of a liberated woman. The painter Mario Carreño was her second husband and she was promoting his career 100 percent. The couple and their circle were “popular front liberals,” with some communists among them—completely secular, and enemies of snobbery.

Mario Carreño, Sugar Cane Cutters, 1943
Courtesy private collection, Dominican Republic

All of this defined them as different from two other cultural groups in Havana at the time; as a matter of fact, they were defined in a sense in opposition to them. These were the anthropologist Lydia Cabrera with her support of the painter Wifredo Lam; and the Catholic group around the poet José Lezama Lima and the art critic Guy Pérez Cisneros, and its support for the painters Mariano Rodríguez and René Portocarrero and the sculptor Alfredo Lozano. The Cabrera and Lezama groups could be friendly with each other; they shared a comfortable support or tolerance for the Batista regime (let us recall that Wifredo Lam received a subsidy from it), an elitist contempt for national politics, and an exclusivist view of the role of culture. They also disliked María Luisa’s over-the-top personality and what Lydia Cabrera called “the arrogance of the young Gómez Sicre who had never been to Europe.”

The “young Gómez Sicre who had never been to Europe” would, with the guidance of Alfred Barr, define what he himself described as “another space, a different scale of values for modern Cuban painting, different from Lydia Cabrera and the pious Origenistas.” The key to this redefinition is to be found in two categories which Gómez Sicre borrowed from Barr: a rejection of the derivative and descriptive and an affirmation of what Barr called “the conscientious, continuous, resolute distinction of quality from mediocrity and an expressive formality that disdains the merely illustrative.”

Amelia Peláez, Marpacifico (Hibiscus), 1936
Courtesy private collection, New York City

For Gómez Sicre it would be Carlos Enríquez, Fidelio Ponce, and Amelia Peláez who were the true originals and innovators in the first generation of Cuban modernists. Enríquez absorbed and synthesized futurist and dream-like imagery with a turbulent Cuban ethos. Peláez had digested Matisse, synthetic cubism, and the dense textures of Soutine into what the young curator called a “highly personal vocabulary whose subject is tropical and domestic, while its forms are monumental.” Ponce had concocted an “expresionismo casero” that rejected local color for a monochrome, hallucinating world filled with saints, death, and tubercular patients, all without ever having left Cuba. They were expressive over descriptive, and their narratives were so personal that they were rarely illustrative.

This paradigm becomes difficult to uphold when it comes to the second generation of Cuban modernists. As a whole they were all impacted by Picasso’s neoclassical phase, as well as by the Mexican artists identified with easel painting and the Contemporaneos group. The pictures of Mariano, Carreño, Portocarrero, Bermúdez, Martínez Pedro and Orlando are descriptive and narrative. Gómez Sicre preferred Carreño and Bermúdez over Mariano and Portocarrero. Even though he agreed that there was a commonality among all six, he argued that Carreño was the more technically innovative of the sextet and the only one among the Cubans to have understood and absorbed the innovations of Siqueiros. For Gómez Sicre, the importance of Bermúdez was based on the “almost naïve charm of his pictures, its clunkyness, intense coloration, and repressed homo-erotic sensibility.” For him, Mariano and Portocarrero fit too easily within what he called the “Origénes chapel,” and their baroqueness, in his view, was forced.

Fidelio Ponce, Cinco Mujeres (Five Women), 1941
Formerly Alfred Hitchcock Collection, Hollywood

By now you would have noticed that among the 13 painters in the MoMA exhibition, the obvious absence is Wifredo Lam’s. Gómez Sicre accepted the importance of Lam as a painter who fit easily within his paradigm. By age, training, and vision he belonged with Enríquez, Peláez and Ponce. But Lam, who returned to Cuba in early August 1941 after 18 years in Europe, saw himself as a member of an international avant-garde – Surrealism – not as another member of the Cuban avant-garde. His personality and Gómez Sicre’s clashed, and with Lydia Cabrera’s support Lam chose not to participate in the 1944 MoMA exhibition, even though he was invited by Barr himself. Years later, after the triumph of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Lam would tell journalist and cultural activist Carlos Franqui, “I see my relation to Cuban art similar to Rivera’s in Mexican art; we both experienced the European avant-garde directly, he was a Cubist, I joined the Surrealists. We returned home, but were in fact superior to our peers.” Gómez Sicre would reluctantly acknowledge Lam’s importance, but after the 1959 revolution, his position within the ideological divide of the Cold War would make Gómez Sicre a constant critic of both Lam and Mariano for what he called their “opportunistic communism.”

There is a clear difference between the contents of the MoMA exhibition and the content’s of Gómez Sicre’s book of the same year. Pintura Cubana de Hoy, which was published by María Luisa Gómez Mena, included a total of 21 painters, among them Abela, Gattorno, Ravenet, and Arche of the first generation, and younger promising artists such as Roberto Diago and Daniel Serra Badue. In the MoMA exhibition Victor Manuel was represented by a single work, a landscape that remains lost, while the centrality of Enríquez, Peláez, and Ponce was emphasized with a larger number of works.

Carlos Enríquez, Bandolero criollo (Cuban Bandit), 1943
Courtesy Ramón and Nercys Cernuda, Miami

There was agreement between Barr and Gómez Sicre over the inclusion of Carreño (who had more work than any other artist), Mariano, Bermúdez, Portocarrero, Martínez Pedro and Felipe Orlando, as well as the folk painters Rafael Moreno and Felisindo Acevedo. This inclusion of folk artists – definitely an influence from Barr – would be pursued by Gómez Sicre for the rest of his career in the Visual Arts section of the O.A.S., where folk art was consistently exhibited and promoted between 1946 and 1983.

Another controversial element in the 1944 MoMA exhibition was the inclusion of a single work (also lost) by the Afro Cuban painter Roberto Diago. All of the participating artists, with the exception of Carreño, Enríquez, Peláez, and Ponce, opposed the inclusion of Diago. I inquired of Cundo Bermúdez in 1991 the reason for this and he responded bluntly: “Diago was too young. He had graduated from San Alejandro in 1941, he had not been to Europe, and his first solo exhibition had just taken place at the Lyceum in early 1944. Pepe [Gómez Sicre] and Barr felt differently. Pepe believed that there had to be a black artist in the show because of the importance of Africa in Cuban culture. Most of us disagreed.” Diago is generally considered as “the great failed promise” of Cuban painting; he died in Madrid under mysterious circumstances in 1955.

Gallery view of Modern Cuban Painters at MoMA, April 1944. Works by Carlos Enríquez and Amelia Peláez are visible.
Courtesy Dr. Alejandro Anreus

Modern Cuban Painters established a different paradigm within the narrative of modern painting in Cuba, one which for the first time deliberately utilized the rhetoric of Modernism as defined by The Museum of Modern Art in New York. It shaped the curatorial vision of Gómez Sicre – a vision that would help define Latin American art in the 1950s and 1960s as oppositional to the politics and figuration of Mexican muralism, social realism, and Indigenismo.

The presence of Barr and Kauffman for those ten days in 1942 had a positive impact on the very small Cuban art world of the time. María Luisa Gómez Mena opened the first commercial art gallery in Havana, and a diverse group of young Cuban painters beyond Lam ended up exhibiting their work in New York galleries such as Perls and Julien Levy. A traveling version of Modern Cuban Painters circulated in the U.S. between 1944 and 1946, under the title Cuban Painting Today. It went to 12 venues, ranging from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica, New York to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. In between, modern Cuban painting was introduced to new audiences at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the J.B. Speed Museum of Art in Louisville, Kentucky. In less than a decade the modern painting of Cuba was presented to new audiences in several regions of the United States.

On June 1, 1944, Ramón Grau San Martín of the Auténtico Party won the Cuban presidential election against the Batista-sponsored candidate. Although the Auténtico era tolerated corruption and gangsterismo, there is no denying that in these years – 1944 to 1952 – Cuban culture had an artistic flowering that was, for the first time, deliberately supported by the government (the Dirección de Cultura, within the Ministry of Education, under the leadership first of sculptor Jesús Casagran, and later essayist/historian Raúl Roa). Modern Cuban Painters was, I believe, a key event in the pre-launching of this artistic flowering. It placed Cuban art on the center stage of the future capital of the art world, and it gave the Museum of Modern Art the opportunity to expand its definition of the modern not just beyond Europe, but within the western hemisphere beyond art in the U.S., Mexico and Uruguay.

Next in this series: A closer look at a pivotal figure in the MoMA exhibition and midcentury Cuban art, the art patron and gallerist María Luisa Gómez Mena.